Shakespeare presents and uses Caliban in a number of different episodes in a way that leaves his character open to different interpretations depending on the audience.
In Act 1 scene 2, we are first introduced to Caliban as being a slave, “Slave! Caliban!”
It soon becomes clear that Caliban is a true native of the island, and was there long before Prospero, yet Prospero came and made it his island by abusing Caliban’s knowledge, “This island’s mine…which thou tak’st from me (Caliban)…I showed thee all the qualities o’ the’ isle”
Caliban’s native status on the island, yet forced servitude, may be a symbol of the native cultures occupied and suppressed by European colonial societies – which in the play are represented by Prospero and his power.
Shakespeare uses this as way to engage the audience with Caliban, as they can relate to something they have heard about or are familiar with.
To an Elizabethan audience, the fact that Caliban is given a voice, in that he tells his side of the story and feelings about being suppressed – “cursed be that I did so” – is very radical as he is a monster and a captured native and therefore has no rights.
To a modern audience however, we can see that Caliban’s enslavement may be very unjust.
However, in the same way that Caliban is given a voice, he is cursed for doing so – “Thou most lying slave”. A modern audience could (as said above) sympathise with Caliban, however we are given another point of view by Prospero, in that Prospero did not treat Caliban unkindly “I have used thee…with human care and lodged thee in mine own cell”, and therefore although Shakespeare briefly gives Caliban a voice, it is Prospero who has the final word in the argument of how the island came to be his and therefore Caliban is presented again as being below humans in that his argument is not valid.
Despite this, we have only been given two opinions of what really happened, and so we may not know the truth. Shakespeare therefore includes Miranda, the pillar of everything that is good, also expression of her feelings about Caliban. The fact that Miranda is caring, kind, and appears to have no negative qualities may lead us to believe that her opinions of a character will be fair and correct. Miranda herself calls Caliban an “Abhorred slave” and therefore this suggests that Caliban is truly evil.
This point is reflected in the same episode as Caliban’s ‘evil’ traits are shown immediately. We are informed very early on in “The Tempest” that Caliban tried to rape Miranda “thou (Caliban) did seek to violate the honour of my child (Miranda)” and instead of showing contrition, he says that he wishes he would have been able to finish the deed, “thou didst prevent me”. The fact that Shakespeare uses examples of what Caliban did that was evil (rape), and also by giving descriptions of how ugly Caliban is both modern and Elizabethan audiences can see that Caliban is evil.
To an Elizabethan audience, the fact that Caliban is presented as being a “freckled whelp hag-born, not honoured with human shape”, means that they believe he is evil, as the outward appearance reflects what is inside, and it also again justifies the fact that Caliban is treated as a slave due to the fact that Caliban is an animal and hence below humans which rationalizes Prospero’s treatment of him. The language used by Shakespeare when talking about or describing Caliban is not just used to make him sound grotesque, but to make him sound evilly ugly. For example “hag-born”… “got by the devil himself”. This has the effect of making Caliban sound – even to a modern audience – not only hideous, but evil.
However interpretations of Caliban may differ when it comes to analysing the fact that Caliban appears only fluent in curses, “A south-west blow on ye, and blister you all o’er”… “All the charms of Sycorax…on you”. To an Elizabethan audience this proves his barbaric tendencies, and therefore shows that he is evil, as even after Miranda “pitied thee (Caliban)…took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour”, Caliban merely says that “you taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse”. This shows that although time is spent teaching Caliban how to speak, the only thing he learns is how to curse.
To an Elizabethan audience, this would prove how evil Caliban is – the reason he is only fluent in curses is because he is evil to the core and so cannot learn any other language. “Abhorred slave…which any print of goodness wilt not take”. The only parts of the language that remain in his mind are those which allow him to curse and this therefore shows he is capable of no goodness. In this instance Shakespeare presents Caliban in such a way that will allow an Elizabethan audience to justify the fact that Prospero treats Caliban as a slave, as Prospero tired his best to educate and civilise Caliban, but failed, and therefore proved Caliban can be nothing but evil, meaning he cannot be anything better than a slave – he deserves enslavement.
A modern audience however may hold a different interpretation of Caliban based on the fact that he uses the language he was taught only to curse. We may believe that Caliban is fluent in curses because that is what he hears most often. Shakespeare includes a number of examples of Prospero cursing Caliban, “tonight thou shalt have…side stitches that shall pen thy breath up”… “I’ll rack thee with old cramps”. Each time that Prospero addresses Caliban, he includes curses, and therefore Caliban will be constantly subjected to curses, meaning that it becomes the most common language to him and therefore it can be said that he is merely repeating what he hears. Hence Shakespeare presents Caliban in such a way that differs depending on the moral beliefs of the audience.
Shakespeare’s presentation of Caliban as being evil not capable of being anything other than evil is perhaps more believably shown in Act 4 scene 1, where Prospero is alone on stage, and therefore has no reason to lie about what Caliban is really like, yet his description of Caliban is still very negative, “a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick; on whom my pains…lost”. Therefore Shakespeare is presenting Caliban as being inevitably evil – due to the fact that he is a born devil – and that no amount of teaching will stop him from being evil. The fact that it is said as a soliloquy may suggest that this is a real and honest portrayal of Caliban and therefore this is the description of Caliban that Shakespeare may wish an audience to believe.
One of Shakespeare’s main uses of Caliban is as a comparative device in that he contrasts or mirrors qualities in the other characters in the play.
In Act 1, in his first speech to Prospero, Caliban insists that Prospero stole the island from him, which closely links to the situation Prospero was in when his brother usurped his dukedom, and therefore Caliban may mirror Prospero in this way. However, conversely he also mirrors Antonio, as his desire to get the island back mirrors the lust for power that led Antonio to overthrow Prospero.
Perhaps more in a more complex way, Caliban can be compared to Antonio and Sebastian, in that they are each developing and attempting to carry out plots to kill a divine ruler. In the case of Caliban – he wished to kill Prospero, and Antonio and Sebastian are trying to kill Alonso. The plots are the same; however Shakespeare takes a completely different angle on each of the plots.
In Act 2 scene 2, Caliban plans to have Trinculo and Stephano kill Prospero and therefore the plot is made comical. The drunken men joke about what they are doing and the scene is made ridiculous by Ariel’s invisibility as, when he speaks, Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are not aware of who is speaking, “Why, I said nothing” and blame each other.
In Act 4 scene 1, when the murder is attempted to be carried out, the scene is again made ridiculous by Trinculo and Stephano trying on extravagant and stupid gowns, and hence although the plots of murder are the same – to kill a divine leader – Caliban’s plot is presented as being trivial and therefore reflects on Caliban that he cannot have sincere feelings in plotting to kill, he is just doing it instinctively. It also presents Caliban as being stupid again as he is trusting Trinculo and Stephano to carry out the murder even though they are too busy trying on clothes “here’s a garment for ‘t”. However it is perhaps Caliban that has the most valid reason to kill someone, as Prospero curses Caliban and we can see how he fears Prospero because of this “we shall lose our time and all be turned to barnacles”, he also feels that his island was stolen from him and was unfairly enslaved by Prospero, and therefore wants his revenge by killing Prospero. However Shakespeare uses the stupidity of Trinculo and Stephano to make the plot seem unplanned and hence just an instinctive plan of Caliban who is therefore shown to be like an animal.
Caliban is also used to show the severity, and evil tendencies in Sebastian and Antonio. If Caliban is shown to be an animal because of the instinctive qualities of the murder plot and because he shows no guilt in wanting to kill Prospero, then Antonio and Sebastian are themselves animals, and as evil as the son of a witch, as they are planning to kill Alonso merely so that they can have more power, not because Alonso has done anything to hurt them, and therefore they are just as bad as a demonic monster. Not only that but they have nothing to excuse themselves with as they were brought up in a royal society and therefore with the correct upbringing, yet they are still as evil as a monster. Hence Shakespeare uses Caliban as a way to emphasise how truly evil Sebastian and Antonio are.
The opposite can be said about Miranda. Even though Caliban is an evil, un-teachable monster, Miranda spent time trying to teach Caliban how to speak. In Act 1 scene 2 it shows how she “endowed thy purposes with words that made them known”, and therefore Caliban is used as a way to show how good Miranda is in that she could see Caliban was a “thing most brutish” but yet spent hours of her time teaching a monster to speak.
Caliban can also be compared to Ariel. Not only does this more clearly show the qualities of each of the characters, but it allows us to learn more about the truth of Caliban’s character and help us to understand why he is that way. For example, the opinion could be taken (by the modern audience) that Caliban is treated very unfairly and that his evil tendencies for example, rape, are a result of growing up without parents and in an isolated place with no real society to guide him to make the right decisions, and learn what is acceptable or not.
However, Ariel has also lived on the same island, in the same conditions, without the influence of parents or society, yet is obedient, gentle, and has not turned vicious or violent even though he has great power and could potentially overthrow Prospero. Ariel has been ‘held captive’ by Prospero and not been set free, and therefore has the potential to despise Prospero as much as Caliban, yet he does not, he remains a faithful servant, “master…noble master…what shall I do? Say what”.
Whereas Caliban is coarse resentful, and brutish, described as “hag-seed, “poisonous” and “most lying slave”, Ariel remains delicate, refined and gracious, and is described in the character listing as an “airy spirit”.
Hence it cannot be argued that the circumstances and lack of social influence is what has made Caliban evil, as Ariel still remains an obedient servant. Instead, an Elizabethan audience could see this point as a reflection of original sin – that Caliban was born evil which is supported by the fact that he is the son of a witch (Sycorax), and therefore Caliban is inevitably evil. This may be supported by Prospero’s soliloquy in Act 4 scene 1, in that he says, “As with age his body uglier grows, so his mind cankers”, which reflects that fact that as he is getting older, he is becoming more evil, and to an Elizabethan audience this emphasises the fact that he is inevitably evil, and as he grows, he is becoming the evil monster he was born to be.
On the other hand Caliban could be partly excused for his becoming more evil, as it seems what affects him most, is fear of Prospero. When Caliban is alone at the beginning of Act 2 scene 2, we can see the many ways in which he is cursed, “they bite me…sometime am I all wound with adders who…hiss me into madness” we can also see his fear of being cursed by Prospero when he hears Trinculo approaching, “here comes a spirit of his…to torment me for bringing wood in slowly. I’ll fall flat”. In this way Shakespeare presents Caliban not as being an evil, fearless monster, but as being afraid of what Prospero will do to him for being too slow in collecting wood, and therefore hides. This shows perhaps a more innocent side of Caliban, but still Shakespeare includes Caliban’s cursing of Prospero at the beginning of this speech to balance out the perhaps more gentle qualities shown of Caliban further on in the speech, so that he is not presented as being fully kind, and with human qualities.
Caliban also becomes a parody of himself. In Act 1 scene 2, Caliban is shown as severely regretting how he showed Prospero all the ins and outs of the island when Prospero first arrived. However only a few scenes later in Act 2 scene 2, we see Caliban drunk and saying how he wishes to serve Stephano, “Thou shalt be lord of it (the island) and I’ll serve thee”. In this way we can see that perhaps Caliban has not learnt from his mistakes. Shakespeare uses similar language when Caliban is speaking to Trinculo and Stephano, to the reported story of how Prospero stole the island from Caliban is Act 1 scene 2. For example in Act 2 scene 2, Caliban says to Trinculo and Stephano “I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island”, and in Act 1 scene 2, Caliban says that he “showed thee (Prospero) all the qualities o’ th’ isle…barren place and fertile”. However when talking about what he did for Prospero he curses that he showed Prospero the island, as now Caliban is no longer the ruler of it, “cursed be that I did so”. This shows how Caliban is doing exactly the same again, he does not realise that even if he kills or overthrows Prospero, that someone else will be the ruler of the island. In this way, Caliban is a confusing character, as he wishes Stephano to be the lord of the island, and to serve him, yet on the contrary he complains and curses that the island was stolen from him, “which was first mine own king”, and therefore Shakespeare presents Caliban as being truly a monster, as he does not realise that he is merely repeating what he did with Prospero, or he is ambiguously presented in that it is unclear what Caliban truly wants, or is trying to do.
Shakespeare uses Trinculo and Stephano in Act 3 scene 2 to remind the audience of how much a monster Caliban is. Every time either Trinculo or Stephano speak to, or about Caliban, they include some reference to him being a monster. “Monsieur Monster…moon calf…ignorant monster…poor monster”. This allows us to see how Caliban is still not human, and is still a monster, however the way that Trinculo and Stephano interact with Caliban, and do not appear frightened of him at all, also allows us to see Caliban’s real character that is to say that Caliban is perhaps not as frightening and demonic as Prospero describes him to be and hence Shakespeare is presenting Caliban in a different way. For example the two men share their drink with Caliban, “servant-monster, drink to me”, and in Act 2 scene 2 Trinculo shows he is not afraid of Caliban, as he spends time describing how hideous Caliban is, “a man or a fish? Dead or alive? …he smells like a fish”, but then Shakespeare shows us him climbing under the coat with Caliban – almost for protection, “my best way is to creep under his gabardine…I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past”. Due to this, we can see that Shakespeare is presenting Caliban to look like a monster, but perhaps not to be as frightening as a monster. This point is echoed by the fact that the audience does not ever actually see the frightening side of Caliban – for example we never see him terrorising the island or more specifically raping Miranda, and so perhaps we do not know Caliban’s real character.
Shakespeare may use this so that the audience cannot make a proper conclusion of what he is like and therefore cannot fully hate him or believe his is truly evil which then allows the audience to engage with Caliban, whereas if we were shown examples of Caliban being evil and were not given any other reason to believe he would be anything other than evil, the audience would not have any connection with Caliban, and so he would not be an effective character.
In the same way, we can also see that Caliban possesses another human quality for the audience to engage with in that he fears what Prospero may do to him if he is caught doing something wrong. For instance, as soon as Caliban meets Trinculo and Stephano, he fears that they are spirits sent by Prospero, and shows his fear “the spirit torments me…do not torment me prithee. I’ll bring my wood home faster”. Shakespeare again uses this as a way to demonstrate to the audience that they can relate to him, even though he is a monster.
Caliban also shows a nobler and more sensitive side in his speeches about his island home, “the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”, shows the audience that Caliban is a true native of the island, and understands the true magic of it and therefore the audience can sympathise with Caliban, as we can see that he is not completely evil, as Shakespeare presents him as having affectionate feelings about certain things.
Shakespeare also presents Caliban as being too trusting, and trusting of the wrong people. For example, he trusts Trinculo and Stephano as soon as he realises they are humans and not spirits of Prospero. He is willing to serve them, “These be fine things…I will kneel to him…I’ll swear myself thy subject”, and show them the island, “I’ll show thee the best springs”, and trusts them with his protection, “I prithee be my god”, yet knows nothing about them except that they are human. This point is also emphasised by that fact that the whole time Caliban is saying how he will serve them, Trinculo and Stephano are making jokes about him, “I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy”… “I could find it in my heart to beat him”.
Shakespeare does this to allow the audience to see this aspect of Caliban’s character in that he not only trusts Trinculo and Stephano, but that he wishes to serve the two idiots just as he did with Prospero, and therefore shows (as said previously) that he does not learn from his mistakes, but also he wants to be of use to someone by choice. He willingly offers to “get thee wood enough” to Trinculo and Stephano, and thus perhaps Shakespeare is showing the audience that Caliban is willing to serve anyone, and desires to have a leader, as long as he is not a slave – as Caliban is very unwilling to fetch wood for Prospero to whom he is a slave, “there’s wood enough within”.
However these human qualities are still intermingled with declarations that Caliban is a monster, “this is some monster of the isle”, and therefore the audience does not relate to him as if he were human meaning that Shakespeare maintains Caliban’s character as being below a human which is important especially to an Elizabethan audience to whom it would be too controversial to present a hideous looking, cursing, and hence evil monster as being like a human, therefore Shakespeare repeatedly includes declarations that he is a monster to affirm to the audience that he is still seen as being evil.
Therefore, in conclusion, Shakespeare presents Caliban as being both inevitably evil, but with human or sympathetic qualities over a number of episodes, as his evil tendencies grow, that is to say that “The Tempest” begins with information that Caliban has tried to rape Miranda, and then we are informed that he is plotting to murder someone, however we are also shown through Caliban’s descriptions of the island, and descriptions of curses he receives from Prospero, that he has some human qualities for example fear.
Shakespeare also presents Caliban as being un-teachable and intermingles the drawbacks of this, for instance he is un-teachable and therefore makes the same mistakes as he did with Prospero, with Trinculo and Stephano, and therefore we can see that perhaps Caliban is incapable of being anything other than a stupid monster.
Shakespeare uses Caliban as a way of comparing the qualities of other characters with an evil monster. For some characters – specifically Miranda – this allows us to see how truly good she is however for other characters – Antonio and Sebastian – we can see that even though people may have an honourable upbringing, they are just as evil as Caliban – a monster.